In which I suck at summarizing

I'm a writer. It's my job. For the past few days, I have been tasked with writing up a conference report I was at a week or two ago. The job was painful for several reasons. One, it was not going to qualify as life's most interesting writing project by any stretch of the imagination. For another, I really suck a summarizing things.
My lack of skills in this department weren't obvious to me until very recently. I didn't really think about it, nor did I really think about why the task was so difficult. It wasn't until I was researching an article on cognitive remediation therapy that I grasped the basis for my difficulties.

One of the tasks in CRT is to summarize a short story or a letter in just a sentence or two. The idea is to help people learn to understand the main idea of something rather than focusing on the details. At first, I thought this was a pretty unusual task- I mean, what could summarizing a fairy tale have to do with anything? But then I got to thinking: maybe this had more to do with anorexia than I previously thought.

Reading about this task reminded me of the time when my college roommate was watching me highlight my biochemistry textbook. I dutifully dragged my fluorescent green marker across lines of text, thinking I was marking up the most important sections of the chapter. My roommate looked over and asked why I bothered highlighting if I was just going to turn the whole page green.

"I skipped some words," I pointed out indigantly.

"True," she said. "I think you missed a 'the' up top."

In my biochemistry text, as in so many other areas of my life, I was so overwhelmed by the details of the information that I lost track of the entire point of highlighting. I only needed to highlight the key points, except I couldn't figure out what those key points actually were. I literally couldn't see the forest for the trees.

It was the same with my conference summary. The hardest part for me was deciding which aspects were important because it all felt important to me. Previous summaries I did when I was in school or at other jobs usually turned into long, rambling tomes because of this difficulty. Certainly, this "summary" wasn't short, not by any stretch of the imagination. But knowing what my difficulty was helped me focus my attention. I told myself that the actual writing bit was pretty straightforward, and so I needed to focus instead on identifying one or two key points from each presentation.

This wasn't easy. I worried a lot about missing something, and from picking one aspect over another. It's hard to move away from beating myself up over having trouble with what should be an easy task. But there's no reason summarizing "should" be easy. I finally finished the project this afternoon, and I am so, so glad it's over!

10 comments:

HikerRD said...

Actually, you summarize quite well--particularly your Smorgasbord posts! It's way more challenging to convey your message with fewer words.I'll stop now.

Laura said...

I am horrible at summarizing and I highlight the whole page too! I don't know if it's an AN thing, but I do think it has to do with my ability to zooooooommm way in on details.

Dawn said...

I'm quite certain that every single detail of every single thing is significantly important and should never be left out of a description. Hence, my husband often tells me I gave him a "woman answer" when he asks what he thinks is a basic question that I have turned into a 5 minute story.

extralongtail said...

I used to have real problems with this too. This was reflected in my first set of exams at university. I wrote too much, because to me EVERYTHING about the topic was important. Writing too much also meant that I was very slow - and so failed to finish the exam paper. I was gutted.

By my final year I had practiced enough to think the question through before answering, to make notes on what was relevant to the specific question and what was not. By the end of my PhD I had worked around this 'problem'.

Excessive detail focus (or 'weak central coherence') doesn't necesarily mean missing 'the bigger picture' completely. I prefer to call it 'systemising'. You are actually a 'high systemiser', Carrie, as I am. You focus on the details first, but you do eventually get the bigger picture. You would never be able to write your wonderful science articles if you couldn't see the bigger picture.

Good scientists are all high systemisers. The only drawback of being a high systemiser is that it takes a long time to complete a project. But we never scrimp on essential detail and develop a very thorough understanding of the topic in the process.

Paula said...

Excellent recognition.
I absolutley relate to this behaviour.
I believe it is connected with perfectionism, which we all know is an active behaviour in people with Anorexia.
I think this point is REALLY relevant, thank you for 'highlighting' this. It's ironic how we behave this way and do not realise it, and when it is pointed out we can better understand our pattern in Anorexia.

hm said...

hahahahaha... you know everyone who posts a comment on this is stressing over whether or not they're only stating the most relevant details or writing too much....

Laura said...

I love the idea of being just a "high systemiser!" That description fits me well!

Alie said...

I have this exact same problem! I had a class a while back where we had to read scientific papers and summarize them. Easy, right? Not when you're confined to only one page for the summary. I always thought it was because of my dyslexia, but maybe it was more perfectionism. Hmm...

Anonymous said...

I know this feeling. It's the panic of having missed something important. To counter that we overcompensate. It might not be directly ED-related, but I think it's part of that. We panic over food and every little calorie - so why not every little detail in other aspects of life?

~E

Anonymous said...

Wow, I never realized this was such a common denominator. It absolutely describes me to a T.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote



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